Pilot rapid-fire review: Homeland

The next couple of weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

This time of year, there’s always a lot of talk about the schism between broadcast networks and cable networks (especially pay cable networks). The differences in expectations, approaches and ultimately, quality, between broadcast and cable networks are quite obvious at this point. Unfortunately, the new slate of scripted programming doesn’t do a whole lot to subvert that point either. While there are a few solid new series on the broadcast networks (Revenge, Subugatory and Pan Am, oddly all on ABC), the best new series of the season by quite a large margin is Showtime’s Homeland.

Above all else, Homeland is a series powered by tremendous performances. The stories being told here aren’t particularly novel; we’ve seen other series and films explore the possibility of a double agent turned by terrorists and the kind of impact being a prisoner of war has on someone once they get back home. The writing is certainly sharp and I do like how this pilot episode is structured (I’ll discuss this momentarily), but goodness, there is all sorts of great acting being done here by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin. All four leads are just splendid and they elevate the admittedly good material to another plane of quality.

As I was watching this episode on Showtime’s web site (where I believe it is still available for free), I tweeted about my confusion over Claire Danes’ lack of stardom and while no one could really give me a good answer to why she isn’t as famous as she should be, there’s no question that this is the best work she has ever done. She was great in My So-Called Life, she was damn good in Temple Grandin and she’s been enjoyable in a number of films (Shopgirl, even the mediocre Terminator: Rise of the Machines), but Danes is tremendous in the opening episode of Homeland.

Her character Carrie is legitimately crazy that’s compelling on the page, yet can sometimes be bad in execution because the performance gets too showy or goes too far. Danes avoids all of that and by the end of the episode, Carrie feels like a fully-formed, confusing and intriguing person. She’s obsessed with her job and haunted by the mistakes she’s made in the past, but she’s such a wreck of a person that it’s hard to make up for those mistakes. There are a number of scenes in the pilot that feature Danes just watching someone else on monitors or in surveillance trucks and they are all still engaging because of how Danes focuses or reacts so strongly. She does a lot of great physical work here that allows us to get inside her head even though we know she’s a bit untrustworthy as a protagonist.

That sort of untrustworthiness extends to all of the characters and certainly allows the actors to perform with a slightly dark and shifty shading. Damian Lewis is always great in everything he’s in and so it’s no surprise that he’s similarly solid here as the solider who has spent the last eight years in Al-Qaeda custody when the world thought he was dead. Because of how the episode is structured, the first half of the episode makes you question Carrie’s issues while Lewis’ Brody appears to be the stoic, discombobulated hero returning home to find that the world isn’t what it used to be. But when the tables turn and it appears that Brody is far from honest about his experiences, Lewis informs that reveal with excellent facial expressions. Both Lewis and Danes do a lot of great work without actually saying anything, which works perfectly in contrast to flashbacks or reactions from other characters.

Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin aren’t given a whole lot of material to work with in this opening episode (Baccarin definitely has more than Patinkin), but both are still great. We’re not used to seeing Baccarin in the less showy supportive housewife role and yet, this is likely her best work as well. Despite her unbelievable beauty, she’s totally believable as Jessica, the wife Brody left behind who has now moved on. Again, this is a character type and position we’ve seen countless times before, but Baccarin makes Jessica seem totally sympathetic even though the first time we meet her she’s having sex with another man. Jessica is just as bewildered and confused as her husband and now she has to try to put her old life back together while keeping things afloat in the present. And Patinkin is playing a role he could do in his sleep, but he still brings a substantial weight and authority to his Saul without overdoing it. Just really, really great performances all the way around.

And as I said, I love how Homeland doesn’t promote one character’s “truth” or opinion over the other. Carrie is clearly the entry point into the story, but she’s severely flawed and reckless despite her good intentions. By the time the pilot is over, Brody looks to be a lot less honest than he put forth and yet, it kind of seems like he had a good reason to do so. You could definitely see that he’s ashamed of the things he did while imprisoned and though the nature of an ongoing story suggests that he has even more secrets, I don’t think we can call him an outright villain. Something is certainly going on, but there’s no way that it is cut-and-dried. None of the four main characters are that trustworthy: Carrie suspects Brody, but she’s not entirely reliable and Saul doesn’t really trust her; Jessica has secrets that Brody will eventually discover and vice versa and who knows what’s really going on with Saul either. No one is really what they seem, but they aren’t exactly awful or unlikable because of it. This makes for compelling and really smart storytelling.

Finally, I’ll be curious to see how the series handles the obvious political issues at play here. The pilot raises some questions about surveillance in the post-9/11 world and seems more interested in exploring the consequences of that kind of intelligence gathering than something like Person of Interest, but most series are somewhat timid to jump head-first into ideological conversations, especially in a first season. Political and military concerns will drive the stories, but I’m guessing they won’t necessarily be overtly dominant, if that makes any sense.

There’s always a chance this all falls apart after a few episodes and no one really knows about a second season either. The creators worked previously on 24, which is both good and bad news. But right now it sure feels like Homeland is on its way to becoming one of the great cable series that we like to talk about all the time.

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